Wednesday, May 24, 2017


I've been noodling on a bunch of things this last week. I tried to write up a review of the latest Luminous Endowment Winners, but it wasn't going anywhere (it's a stronger field than the last time, still with a couple of weak spots, and I really really just like several of the winners). Colberg made a remark on his recent reviews about the trend toward photographing traces of people rather than people. I noted in the Luminous Endowment Winners a fellow doing aerial/drone photography to illustrate poverty, which is pretty much the same thing. See also recently reviewed bits and pieces.

It strikes me that I am noting an almost nihilistic thread in contemporary Art, at least in the products of people with MFAs.

The business about not photographing people, about appropriating satellite imagery, and so on, has the effect of creating distance from the subjects. I suppose if you're shooting macro pictures of bugs, or landscapes, or whatever, you can go get coffee now, skip this essay entirely. Human stories are increasingly being told without any humans in them. I have at least one regular reader, who makes pictures that I love, who shoots extensively in this genre.

We also have Nina Berman writing about how to document sexual violence with photos, leaving out the people. On the one hand, obviously, photographing people in these cases is difficult, on the other hand the photo essay she provides to support her point is a piece of shit, and on the third hand Nina Berman shot "Marine Wedding" about which I have written a little before. Nina can and does shoot people, and her work is much better when she does.

So the Artists are leaving people out. The photojournalists, some of them, are working around to leaving the people out.

Cowardice, perhaps. It might be more kind to say "Shy"? Because people are difficult to handle, because photographing them is difficult, the temptation to leave them out of their own stories is strong. There are other reasons, rationalizations. I don't claim it's as simple as mere cowardice, there's a lot going on. But gosh, it sure clears out the underbrush when you don't point your camera at people. I include myself in here, it's goddamned hard for me to take pictures of people, and I constantly find myself rationalizing not doing it. Constantly. Every. Single. Day.

Art used to, I think, at least for a time, try to point the way to Answers. At least suggest an agenda, give some hints, some ideas. In Christian religious art, piety and mercy are often shown as the path to, well, some sort of betterment. In the Victorian era we see little morality plays in collaged photos; Oscar Rejlander's "Two Ways of Life" is a photographic manual for not meeting a bad end, as subtle as a Chick Tract. The FSA photographers, under the firm hand of Roy Stryker, held out the FSA itself as the answer to all the ills a farmer might experience.

I don't mean, here, answers in a necessarily specific and detailed way. In contemporary photography I think I could argue that Sally Mann's What Remains gives us in some sense answers to questions of mortality, or more specifically our fear of death. It's not a handy 3 step book on Overcoming Your Fear, but it is in its own poetic way a kind of guide, a collection of hints, items for consideration. Maybe I'm just projecting my own reaction onto the work, I don't know.

The Smiths' Minamata obviously looms large in my mind here, again they don't give a handy 3 step guide to solving the pollution problem, but they have some ideas, some signposts.

It seems to me that the reluctance to photograph people is, if not a symptom of, at least packaged neatly together with the larger trend to shy away from taking a stand, to shy away from proposing answers. If you won't photograph the people, then you're not telling their stories in a meaningful, visual, way. If you can't even tell their story, you're unlikely to provide answers to problems, or paths to enlargement, or insightful commentary, or any of that. See Nina Berman's photo essay.

The same coyness that pushes us not to engage people, to avoid their terrifying gaze, to avoid engaging them, to avoid their messiness, also pushes us to avoid Answers. It's so much easier to simply document the problem, or the place, or... whatever it is. Actually engaging, actually shoving our ugly fat noses into it to, actually getting muddy, involved, messy, is simply too much.

For me too. It's hard and it scares me.

But you can't make anything of any depth unless you get in there, get in there hip-deep in the muck, get engaged, get your face all shoved up in whatever it is. Even if you're shooting landscapes, when you simply drive up at the golden hour and take 50 minutes to shoot, your work is going to be shit. Get your goddamned boots on and hike out there, roll in the flowers, drink out of the streams, wrestle a bear. Metaphorically, of course. Unless you're Russian, then just go right ahead with an actual bear. Because, Russians. Google "russian dash cam" for proof that Russians are more or less immortal.

If your story is about people, you're gonna have to get messy, you're gonna have to get into their faces, get involved. I don't mean be Bruce Gilden, and I don't mean you have to become friends with your subjects before you shoot them. I mean you do have to be in the mix, you have to connected, plugged in, part of it all.

Stamp all over this piece, in big red letters, "NOTE TO SELF" because I am the first person that comes to mind as I write. Still, you can use it too, if you think it might apply.


  1. I don’t profess to know what’s behind the thinking, but maybe it’s just easier to “infer” the people rather than hitch up your courage and actually photograph them; but that’s more or less what you said isn’t it. I get the same reaction from my tog friends who see my street photography. Maybe I’m weird or just dumb, but I like seeing the people in the pictures and have no problem photographing them. In the last 5 years I’ve only been hassled on three occasions - twice by bystanders, not the subject.

    Part of the problem may be that the “theory” around photographing people in journalistic/documentary fashion is the “street ethic” of short lens and up close. I have done that on occasion such as the Night Market which is ALL wide angle work by necessity due to the
    presence of people in your way and achieving some sense of intimacy. Most of my work is with a lens that’s the equivalent of a 27-270mm.

    Why? A lot of the action takes place on the other side of the street and getting there in time to get the shot is out of the question, attempting it would be death defying (traffic) and my presence would kill the spontaneity of what’s going on. There are times when the subject
    is aware of me or I ask permission, but that’s the RARE exception.

    I’ve sent you a dropbox with some stuff. Let me know what you think.

    1. To be honest, I'm not sure you're getting my point here. It's not really about physical proximity, it's about emotional proximity.

      Photographing a lover from a block away has more power than photographing a stranger, someone you don't understand, and only care about as a vague abstract, from 2 feet away.

    2. OK. We're on the same page.

      Came across this a couple of days ago but got to it after your post. Interesting reading.

  2. Talking of Russians and photographing people, if you don't already know it, may I bring to your attention the work of Alexey Titarenko, one of the more interesting photographers working today.


    1. Thanks! I don't know *anybody* or perhaps there are so many somebodies that, statistically speaking, nobody knows anybody.

  3. I think there's quite a lot you can say about people in a relatively generic sense by what they leave behind, by what marks they make on their environment. Photography in that style done well can be very powerful and moving. Obviously if it is done because the photographer is scared of photographing people, well maybe not. And then again, perhaps that in itself says something interesting about the work at one remove. Or, indeed, maybe not.

    People can get in the way of a story - obviously we're immediately drawn to the person in the frame, and the rest falls away. And anyway, there's way too much people photography. They're not as interesting as they think they are.

  4. I am not sure this has anything to do with your post, but since I started thinking about it since reading it, perhaps it does. Although I am 'older than dirt' I don't see myself yearning for the 'good old days' - they were old, but I am not sure they were necessarily 'good.' Anyhow, what I have noted, or imagine to be noting, since digital came into the mainstream, is that I am no longer able to look at a published photo and state, with a fair amount of certainty, this is by 'Joe Fstop.' I simply have a hard time discerning an identifiable core/center/soul in the work I am seeing. The majority of it seems extremely detached from any of that.

  5. I wonder Andrew, if your thoughts on TRAME may be a factor in some human essays devoid of humans?
    That is, are some areas so dangerous or whatever to permit photography until human departure.
    If so I think it would be in a very very small amount of cases.
    Certainly most are likely as you say down to some kind of "fear". Some enjoy and can photograph people quite well. Others not so much

    1. Yeah, isn't that interesting? On the one hand, I'm all "blah blah blah the stuff OUTSIDE the frame, so important" and on the other hand, I am whining about not putting the directly affected people INTO the frame ;)

      I've been noodling on that too!

      Part of it, surely, is that when we see a person, we immediately start imagining their story, we can instinctively spin out long and detailed stories based on a glance. Show me the guy, and I can go on forever. Show me the guy's hammer, and, well, less so?

      Maybe. Maybe I am just a fickle idiot, changing my ideas as the wind changes!

    2. For sure it is a conundrum.
      If it is all about the subject, then where is the picture if the subject is absent?